Geek Interview – Till All Are One: F.J. DeSanto Merges Toys And Netflix’s Transformers: War For Cybertron

When one mentions Transformers, the two main things that come to mind are either the live-action movies introduced by Michael Bay, or the original Generation One (G1) cartoon from 1984 (and this includes the animated movie). 

But at the heart (spark, if you will) of all these mediums are the toys, from the blocky, barely posable figurines that defined an entire toyline, to the latest, highly articulate figures that show how there’s much more than meets the eye. And don’t kid yourself if you won’t admit to wanting to snag a toy or two from even the visually-striking but ultimately mediocre Bayformers movies. 

Let’s face it: without the toys, we wouldn’t have the cartoons, the movies, and now most recently, the Transformers: War For Cybertron Trilogy animated series on Netflix.

“There’s nothing more than when you see something on screen and you fall in love with the character, you want to buy the toy. You want as accurate a toy as possible to the show. You want to say ‘Hey, that’s the character I fell in love with on screen’,” says series showrunner and executive producer F.J. DeSanto tells Geek Culture.

Inspired by the G1 cartoon and the 1986 animated movie, Transformers: War For Cybertron is perhaps the biggest piece of fanservice G1 fans could ever ask for. Back then, many would’ve imagined just how their favourite robots in disguise would look like with modern technology, given how well their toy counterparts by Hasbro turned out but there were major differences between what was in the hands of fans, and what fans saw on TV. 

F.J. DeSanto

And nearly forty years later, animation studios now have the technology to bring the toy models over to the small and big screen, and make something truly out of a geek’s wildest imagination.

For War For Cybertron, the toys are the focal point of the animation. Working in tandem with Hasbro and Japanese studio Polygon Pictures (Transformers: Prime, Transformers: Robots In Disguise), the team drew inspiration from over thirty years’ worth of digital assets for the original toys given access to them by Hasbro. If you’re fan of G1, there are plenty of character homages in this animated series to this one.

And if Hasbro already made a toy previously, the animators also used those for reference when making the 3D models for the show. The end result? Toys that look like their cartoon counterparts, and vice versa. No more would the Jetfire toy look nothing like the one in the cartoon, or Ironhide toy versus the cartoon.

“This is probably the first Transformers show that has the deepest collaboration with Hasbro.”

This is interesting as, as DeSanto explains, not every character’s design is based off either the G1 cartoon or toys. Female Autobot Elita-1, for example, takes on a more modern take of the classic design, where Bumblebee is a perfect clone of the original ‘80s cartoon. It’s ultimately deciding which design is more befitting of War For Cybertron’s overall tone and atmosphere that makes the process so interesting.

DeSanto elaborates that there is even a designer at Polygon Pictures who has the specific role of dissecting the toy and figuring out how transformations from robot to vehicle, and vice versa, work, and how the rigging team can work that into a way that makes sense for animation. And from what we’ve seen in our preview episodes, it looks as though Polygon and Hasbro have gotten the formula right.

“For me as a fan, I think [the animation process] is super cool, knowing when I see Optimus Prime transforms [in the show], it’s literally how the toy transforms” muses DeSanto, trying his darndest to maintain his professionalism and not explode in geeky glee. 

“But for us, it was not only to be as authentic to the toy line as possible, but also to the franchise as possible. So the toy that they [Hasbro] are going to put out is actually more based on what we designed. If there’s anything about the way things work in the future, I think this is probably the first Transformer show that has the deepest collaboration with the brand team, the toy team, all of Hasbro. We’re really working in tandem with one another, and I think we’re going to have a better show because of that.”

For many fans, it’s constantly been a chicken-or-egg question when it comes to the toys and the shows. Do the toys get made first, then get used for reference in the animation, or is it the other way around? Interestingly, DeSanto doesn’t give a definitive answer, given the back-and-forth nature of how the writing and animation teams bounce ideas with the toy company itself.

“It varies, but it’s all done in the spirit of collaboration.”

Just in case you aren’t in the toy space, Hasbro has constantly been releasing the official action figures for Siege, the first series in the trilogy, since way back in 2018 (we even received a whole bunch of them last year). This means that, in essence, the action figures are spoilers for the show, in a way. Even the recent promotional toys that we received earlier this year were unabashedly labeled as a “spoiler pack”. For DeSanto and his writing team, as well as the folks at Polygon Pictures, this might serve as a heart attack for them, given they themselves had to sign non-disclosure agreements prior to making War For Cybertron

However, this isn’t the case, and instead they have embraced the spoiler-y nature of the toys, and have used it to their advantage to get fans hyped for the series.

“Everybody’s got a very different sort of system [when it comes to their launches], meaning Hasbro has certain production release dates and things like that. And so do we, based on how long it takes to create the animation,” explains DeSanto. 

“When we started War For Cybertron we developed it as the trilogy first. What we did on Transformers: Prime Wars was develop a season, take a break, develop the next season, take a break. With War For Cybertron, because it’s such a big show, we decided to do it all at once, so the story was developed really early on.”

“And with Hasbro, they sort of showed us what toys they were thinking about [for release], and we chose, let’s say, half of them based on budget and time and fit them into the show. So [with the digital assets sent over by Hasbro] we can go create the models in Japan. In certain instances, the toys have been decided in advance, and they’re going to go make those. And in certain instances, depending on where Hasbro is with the actual toy production process, we’d have to design characters from scratch based on Hasbro’s drawings and things like that. It varies, but it’s all done in the spirit of collaboration.”

Even before the premiere of Siege, we’d already learned of the upcoming second and final parts of the trilogy: Earthrise and Kingdom. Though we’re still pretty much in the dark about what these two shows are, Hasbro has already launched toys for the former, and as such we wouldn’t be surprised if the Beast Wars-centric third arc of the series would get their own toys in the near future, too. 

“The toys being out [before the show] serve as their own marketing for the show because people would like certain toys and hope they’re in the show, so they’ll watch it,” DeSanto elaborates. “The same thing will happen in the coming months when they reveal whatever or whoever is in Kingdom. And I think it’ll create a lot of buzz and a lot interest, especially with the diehard fans, where after they’ve watched Siege, I can guarantee you that you won’t know how to get to Kingdom. And I think that’s the fun part — maybe when you get to Earthrise you’ll start to figure out [what happens in Kingdom]. But I think right now, it’s really fun to sort of create those expectations and excitement and anticipation for fans.”

And as if the direct collaboration with Hasbro wasn’t enough, the animators even were given access to the assets and physical versions of all the Japan-exclusive toys made by Takara Tomy. For those who cannot differentiate between Elita-1 and Teletraan 1, Optimus Prime from Rodimus Prime, Megatron from Galvatron, Takara Tomy is the company behind the Transformers mecha toys. We won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say certain characters that make an appearance in War For Cybertron were directly taken from the Japanese toys.

Having had to fly over to Japan to present the show to Takara Tomy earlier this year, DeSanto explained that it was a nerve wrecking affair for him, given how he had personally collected the Takara Tomy Transformers toys in his youth. So as a fan of their toys, it was a dream come true for DeSanto to merge the Japanese toys with the American ones. 

But that’s not all — given how Netflix has recently stepped up its game in the Asian market, it only makes sense to have the Japanese dub of the show to release in Japan too. Also, War For Cybertron is full circle for Polygon Pictures, having made several other Netflix Original anime such as Blame!, Ajin: Demi-Human and Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. In essence, this entire project is something that both fans of the West and East can truly come together to appreciate.

“Takara and Hasbro — they run this franchise,” says DeSanto. “I literally can’t tell you how intimidating it was being in the room with the people who have literally designed these characters that you have on screen. You realise the responsibility you have to the fans, but also to these creators who are so talented. But I think they were just as nervous to meet me as I was to meet them. [War For Cybertron] is also, I think, the first show in a very, very long time to play in Japan, in Japanese. So it’s a big deal. They have the original Japanese voice cast [to voice the Japanese dub]. Netflix has gone really strong in terms of supporting it in Japan.”

Naturally, the question then is, which Transformers toyline is DeSanto’s favourite? Hasbro or Takara? DeSanto is keeping mum on this, but from our conversation with him, fans will be pleased to know that the Matrix of Leadership has been passed on to very capable hands. 

And he’s certainly got the touch.

Transformers: War For Cybertron launches exclusively on Netflix on 30 July.

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